From telling the story to digging into history

A dream team of top journalists culled from the best newsrooms in years that many consider a golden age in local journalism? Check. Innovative layout? Check. An editorial mission to do quality popular journalism, with Timerman-like sophistication in the tabloid spirit of Crónica? Check. A place within the structure of urban guerrilla movement Montoneros? Check.
That was the formula of Noticias sobre todo lo que pasa en el mundo, a short-lived newspaper published between November 1973 and August 1974 as part of Montoneros’ communication strategy. What happened in the ten months between the first issue and the shutdown order issued by President Isabel Perón is the starting point for Noticias de los Montoneros, a book where Gabriela Esquivada dives deep and thorough into the story and surfaces with a chunk of history – raw, contradictory, rich in connections and tangents, and (most of all) exceptionally well told.
“I was more interested in telling the stories well than anything else: I tried to tell the stories as best as I could. The history of the newspaper was an excuse to tell the story of this group of people, and of the groups of people that were around them, and what happened to them before, and what happened to them afterwards. Also, there are so many testimonies and sources and quotes, so many other voices coming into play which even contradict each other – that’s life, that’s stories: stories never have neat endings. We never know what happened,” says Esquivada to the Herald.
It is this focus that makes the book a gripping read – as fine a piece of journalistic research as it is, full of interviews and references to a complex and far-reaching web of facts, testimonies and documents, the book stands out as a narrative work, going back and forth in time, including historical episodes that go well before and after the few months covered in Noticias’ biography, and working within a tradition of Argentine writing that puts literary devices to journalistic use (and viceversa) which includes names like Rodolfo Walsh and Tomás Eloy Martínez.
The seed of the book was the dissertation for Esquivada’s MA in Journalism, which compared Noticias to other newspapers of the times. “There’s many years of work here – but also many years of self-boycott! The dissertation got published, but (like all dissertations) it’s very heavy reading. After that, the image of the group of professionals who did Noticias lingered in my head, and every time I came to Argentina I advanced on the research. Yet, I could have finished the book three years earlier: at one point I was so embarrassed I told the publishers we should just cancel the contract, but they insisted on an extension.”
The book’s meandering narrative spans from the bombing of Plaza de Mayo in 1955 when Perón was ousted from power to the 2008 conflict between farmers and the Kirchners. This feat of research and structure puts the book in context and transforms the story into a piece of history – but it is assisted, also, by the fact that history has not truly moved forward in Argentina. When Esquivada was interviewing Montonero leader Fernando Vaca Narvaja near the garage he runs in Floresta, she was distracted by the photos of three young men stuck in the gas station cafeteria’s window: they had been shot by a police officer on December 29, 2001 after they had cursed at the TV showing images of cops charging on demonstrators at Plaza de Mayo during the December 20 marches that led to Fernando de la Rúa’s resignation. The interview, which had so far been focused on what the newspaper meant for Montoneros’ structure and Vaca Narvaja’s role in the 1972 prison break at Trelew, shifted. “When I’m in the middle of an interview with Vaca Narvaja and the story of this other murder shows up, I know it’s time to take a detour, ask about it, add it and see how that plays with what I was planning to do, because the story’s changed now. Violence in this country never stops, we are still living in El matadero!”
But not all interviews were as simple: Mario Firmenich and Roberto Perdía, the other two members of Montoneros’ Conducción Nacional, were reluctant (even confrontational) towards the project. “Firmenich was difficult, it took 2 years for him to accept meeting me and that was just because I was referred to him by someone else, and he wouldn’t let me record the meeting or take notes. Perdía talked me down, he was wary of me and the book. In the 70s they were working on other things, this was one percent of the work of Montoneros: let’s have a newspaper, but first we must take over the country – they had other priorities.”
Indeed, the position of Noticias within the guerrilla organization was uncomfortable: the leaders were at ease with El descamisado, a party magazine that was directed specifically to members and allies, but had a more difficult relationship with the staff of Noticias. “They changed the political commissar at one point: Urondo was the one with the link to Montoneros’ party line, and at one point they didn’t like him any more and replaced him with someone else. They used the revolutionary moral as an excuse, because Urondo was cheating on his partner, but the real reason was political, the newspaper was too independent for their taste. They were very critical people. Smoje, Verbitsky and Walsh had been at the CGTA’s weekly, they had too much of a political history to just accept the party line. When the newspaper was created Perón hadn’t taken power yet, anything was possible, but when the Triple A started shooting them down and bombing the newsroom the newspaper had to go in another direction. The newspaper’s leadership couldn’t make it but there was an all-too-real problem in the streets, at the Government House, at the Social Welfare Ministry, in Chile, in Uruguay... reality changed brutally. When Urondo left, he was replaced by Norberto Habegger, a first-grade political official who was not going to be overstepped so easily. When they first got the news of Father Mugica’s murder, for instance, Habegger decided to keep it a small story until they found out what the party line on that was going to be. Gelman was on call that night, and he was desperate, saying that they should change their front page and centrefold, give it more space, but they ended up replacing one of the smaller headlines... but that criticism from the newspaper’s editors didn’t go unnoticed by the Montoneros leadership.”
Some newsroom members were not even Montonero members, and were there for the journalistic project. “The stories of those who were more reticent about the project are the most interesting, because they are the most unique. Not belonging to the orga, they had a different perception of things. The most amusing was Sylvina Walger’s. She talks about how her Montonero boyfriend found her reading a bunch of Hola! Spanish gossip magazines (and she adds that she was happy because she could only read it thanks to Perón’s return, because Hola! magazine wasn’t imported before but it was Isabel Perón’s favourite magazine – which is a tongue-in-cheek but dead-accurate description of the Perón-Perón ballot), and told her ‘one magazine is OK, but a whole heap is not normal...’ That shows a certain distance from all the tragedy, that there’s hope as long as we can laugh. The story that moved me the most is Carlos Ulanovsky’s, because at the beginning of our interview he told me that for many years he did not include Noticias in his CV: he said it with such pain, and then I saw traces of that in what he told me and in his memoir of his Mexican exile (Seamos felices mientras estamos aquí), that he lived the contradictions in a very raw sense. He was not a Montonero, he was a young man interested in politics who believed that the cycles of violence and military coups followed by weak democratic administrations were finally going to end, a man who had worked for Frejuli and then saw how that project collapsed and ended up in exile. Roberto Guareschi’s view is that of a very lucid guy who, as things developed, went to Bonasso and told him ‘this is not what you signed me up for, and I have two things to say about that: a) I’m leaving, and b) think about what you’re doing here, because what you said this was going to be made sense and this newspaper is losing it.’ I also love Alicia Barrios’ story, a very young girl who worked for a living – she was not a spoilt child who decided to become a writer. She had lost a job at Revolutionary Workers’ Party PRT’s magazine, where they told her to wear a bra to work. They insisted so much that one day she brought a bra in her purse and placed it on top of her desk. She was kicked out, and found a job at Noticias. She told me how she took Martín Caparrós, the youngest, most handsome guy in the newsroom, to her place to get laid. She’s also a symbol that young people had a normal life too, that they went out, ate, fucked, went to shows, read, that they were not creating the New Man 24 hours a day.”
Still, it takes the times to make the newspaper, says Esquivada. “Today there cannot be popular journalism of the kind Noticias aimed at because there isn’t a political dimension: I don’t mean Montoneros, but the awareness that a newspaper is a political actor and not just a business unit, the notion that a reader has a right to be informed, that newspapers build an agenda which is not innocent. A newspaper like that today would be madness. This project required that country in those circumstances with those journalists.”
But it was that country and those times which doomed Noticias. “The newspaper was closed down by president Isabel Perón in late August, but in early September Montoneros went underground: how can you have a structure like that with an underground organization? It would have folded anyway.”
Esquivada’s book reads like a pageturner but keeps reminding readers that this is not magical realism, that lives were risked and lost, that violence existed. In one of the most ironic and perhaps symptomatic turns, she mentions that there are no official records of the publishing company, which suggests that it was a mere rubber stamp. Esquivada quotes an explanation from a staff member that is a sign of the times: “Patricia Walsh told me she always believed the company was a fake, but ‘anyway, we thought the revolution would come eventually and then we would settle all scores’.” But the revolution did not come, and all the scores still have to be settled.


Gabriela Esquivada started hercareer in journalism as an intern in the early days of Página/12 in 1987. She worked in the newspaper as a reporter and then sub-editor of the literary suplement. She was part of the launch team for Página’s book supplement “Radar Libros” and women’s magazines Cosmopolitan and Luna. She also worked for Veintitrés magazine before moving abroad. While she was not living in Argentina she wrote freelance for several newspapers and magazines in Argentina and other Latin American countries.
Her journalistic and academic work has been collected in anthologies, and she has edited books for the Fundación para un Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano. She has received an MA in Journalism from the University of La Plata.

A who’s who of noticias

“Noticias was a mini-bang of our contemporary culture, politics and journalism,” says Gabriela Esquivada, before going over the most salient names in the newsroom.
She starts with the living editors and section heads. “Miguel Bonasso is a Congress member and he keeps writing, he will publish a wonderful novel later this year on the figure of 19th century patriot Bernardo de Monteagudo. Horacio Verbitsky is probably the most influential political columnis in our country, and he continued with Noticias’ idea of the press as a political actor and journalists as people with clear positions. Juan Gelman won the Premio Cervantes, the highest distinction for a Spanish-language writer.”
But Noticias was also the place where many who would have remarkable careers later on started out, or participated in smaller roles than those they would later occupy. “If we look at the younger journalists, or those who were in other areas, Mario Stilman left Clarín a short time ago after working in the international desk and then back in sports. Carlos Eichelbaum, Carlos Ulanovsky, Sylvina Walger are all in print and electronic media today. Roberto Guareschi created the Clarín we know today. Ricardo Roa is still one of the top editors at Clarín. Martín Caparrós and Alicia Barrios are still influential journalists. Patricia Walsh became a Congress member and then City legislator...”
But two of the most significant names associated with the newspaper are also among those who disappeared during the 1976-83 military dictatorship: Rodolfo Walsh and Francisco “Paco” Urondo. “Nowadays there’s a fortunate revival of Francisco Urondo’s poetry and essays. Rodolfo Walsh became an unwilling patron saint of journalists thanks to Operación masacre, a fact that obliterates his amazing fiction and which has turned him into a two-dimensional person.”
The echoes of three other dead staff members reach us through their children’s work today. “The daughter of Juan Julio Roqué, aka ‘Iván,’ directed the documentary Papá Iván, trying to find out who was that man who loved her so much and wrote her some beautiful letters and left behind some beautiful memories but who disappeared from her life to do things he said would be very important to her, and ended up as a huge absence and an enigma. Roberto Carri worked in the newspaper too, and Albertina Carri’s Los rubios is an extraordinary film about his loss and the construction of the missing parents. Roberto Quieto’s son, Guido, is trying to reopen the case of his kidnapping, and also to clear his memory: Roberto Quieto was kidnapped by a parapolice group under a democratic government and was taken, probably to Campo de Mayo, to be tortured. Montoneros decided to give up the search, then accused him of treason, condemned him in absentia, sentenced him to death and allowed the death sentence to be carried out by the enemy, who was holding him prisoner in a concentration camp... Guido Quieto was six when this happened. This speaks of the change from parapolice repression to state terrorism, and also of the degree of political delusion and madness in Montoneros, blinded by a militarist perspective and losing sight of what a political group is there for, what they do for their members when they are in trouble... I don’t want to be a judge of what they did, but I think that was a clear, visible symptom of what was going on.”

(Publicado en el Buenos Aires Herald el 16/1/10)

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